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Mr. Wong, Detective

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Mr. Wong, Detective

Published 1938

From IMDb: When a chemical manufacturer is killed after asking detective James Wong to help him, Wong investigates this and two subsequent murders. He uncovers a international spy ring hoping to steal the formula for a poison gas being developed by the first victim's company.

Stars Boris Karloff, Grant Withers and Maxine Jennings

The Mr. Wong series of films

Mr. Wong, Detective
The Mystery of Mr. Wong
Mr. Wong in Chinatown
The Fatal Hour
Doomed to Die
Phantom of Chinatown

Run time 69 Minutes
Production Company Monogram Pictures Corporation
Audio/Visual Mono, Black & White
Language English


Reviewer: Dark Moon - favoritefavorite - April 28, 2011
Subject: I just plain old hated it
...for which reason I give it two stars.

A large portion of the audience side of the storytelling equation is governed by something known as "willing suspension of disbelief." Ask for too much SoD from the audience, and their ability to "get into" the story is blown apart (not to mention their feeling insulted by what they were asked to swallow). But WSoD is a fickle and personal creature, much in the same way that humour is—what works for you may not work for me. And this did not work for me at all.

First, there is the same formula that Conan Doyle used in his Sherlock Holmes stories, of the private consulting detective who accomplishes what the inept and bumbling official police cannot. (It is also noteworthy that Mr. Wong uses some of the same detection techniques that Doyle had Sherlock Holmes use.) However, where the chemistry of Doyle's [Holmes <==> Inspector Lestrade] works for me, Wiley's and Branch's [Wong <==> Captain Street] does not.

Captain Street impresses me as a two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out character. This is not at all the fault of Grant Withers, who portrays him faithfully; Captain Street is obviously just written that way. Approaching all his problems with an over-inflated aggressiveness, he minds me of the saying that "when the only tool you possess is a hammer, all of your problems begin to look like nails." He is a most peculiar animal: The generation with which I grew up would have called him a pig, but pigs are actually intelligent creatures. He strikes me more like a barking dog, but without even a pedigree—a rabid cur, or a yapping mutt. Even as a satire, this portrayal of the "hard boiled" detective falls flat on its face for me. His colleagues on the force, who are mirror images to his own character, do not help matters.

Then there is the casting of Mr. Wong. Even in his makeup, Mr. William Henry Pratt aka Boris Karloff looks about as Asian as I do (my ancestry is Eastern European). Not only does he lack the ethnic physiology but, though he was a skilled actor, he also (glaringly) lacks the mannerisms of the culture. They couldn't have done worse had they cast John Wayne for the role.

Then, on three separate occasions during the film, we have people walk into small, confined rooms moments after the previous occupant has died within from exposure to poison gas, yet none of those who walk in immediately after suffer any ill effects whatsoever. At least Conan Doyle did not so insult his audience in his The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, where one of the clues that Holmes follows is the effect that residual traces of poison gas has upon people who later enter upon the crime scenes.

Spoiler alert! Possible spoilers follow.

Finally, we are presented with two trite and over-tired old tropes. For one, the police answer every call in the film with sirens on. Perhaps people accepted that in 1938, though I can't really imagine so. It occurred to me that the sirens might be part of the story and a link in the mystery, but dismissed them because they were not played in the film loudly enough—until the film's end. The other trope has to do with what loud noises will do to brittle glass.

End spoilers.

Two stars (instead of none) for the fine cast. No, my ire is aimed directly at the writers—at their plot and characterizations. Sure Conan Doyle is the gold standard when it comes to this sort of detective fiction. However, the writers of Mr. Wong adopted Doyle's formula, so I have no problem holding them to his standard.
Reviewer: porterville - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - October 1, 2010
Subject: Boris Karloff Scores Big in "Mr. Wong, Detective"
Another enjoyable mystery movie with Boris Karloff as James Lee Wong. The plot progresses nicely with enough suspense to hold the viewer's attention. Boris Karloff did himself credit in this recurring role. The supporting cast is good, especially Grant Withers who was also in the other films in this series.
Reviewer: jetan - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 15, 2010
Subject: Good "B"
Not as good as the Mr. Moto movies, but better than all but the Warner Oland Chan flicks. The short length made this one perfect as the "B" entry on a double bill.
Reviewer: Ed Jr - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - January 2, 2010
Subject: Classic Oriental Detectives
Excellent all the way. Boris was great, the plot and suspense were great. They just don't make them like that any more. I think this beats Mr. Moto by far.
Reviewer: libbathegreat - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 9, 2009
Subject: Good fun
If you'd like to see another great acting notable playing an Asian detective, check out Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, jiujitsu expert and master of disguise.
Reviewer: Shadows_Girl - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 21, 2008
Subject: The OTHER Great Asian-American Detective
Introducing James Lee Wong played by Boris Karloff(British accent and all---but Mr. Wong had been educated in Britain so that made sense).

Not bad for a a B picture. Keeps the pace going, plenty of mystery, and some fine character performances by Lucien Prival as the evil Baron von Krantz, Evelyn Brent as the sinister Countess Dubois, and John Hamilton (who was "Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet" to MY generation who grew up watching George Reeves as "Superman."
4 stars.
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